‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’: Reuniting India

  • Ram Puniyani

‘Unity in Diversity’ is a phrase I picked up in my school years. Enjoying the Ramlila festivities for the ten days before Vijayadashami ran parallel to watching the Tazia processions. I have also enjoyed Jaina processions with Jains chanting slogans of VandeViram (Hail Lord Mahavira) and have been an enthusiastic witness to the celebrations of Dalits on the day Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. I used to celebrate Christmas with my college friends. This sentiment of how Indians marked various festivals was an experiential one for me instead of theoretical. It was a part of my life. Diversity in Indian society goes as far back as the imagination can. Christianity is older in India than in many countries with far larger Christian populations. Islam had become a part of this land right in the seventh century. The Shaka, Kushana, Hunas, and Greeks added their flavours to our culture. That is how social and religious diversity became so deep-rooted in our collective being. While there was ethnic strife prevailing between Shias and Sunnis/Shaivas and Vaishnavas, the social conditions settled into coexistence and harmony between religious streams. The Ashokan edicts ask for mutual respect among members of different religions (which included Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism, and the Ajivakas). Much later, the Mughal ruler Akbar promoted Deen-e-Ilahi and Sulh-e-Kul. In his book MajmaUlBaharayn, Dara Shukoh described India as a confluence of two seas, Hinduism and Islam.

Running parallel to this was the Sufi Tradition. The Bhakti saints such as Kabir, Ramdeo Baba peer, Tukaram, Namdeo and Narsi Mehta drew followers from both - Hindus and Muslims. Sufi saints such as Nizamuddin Auliya, Muin al-Din Chishtiand Haji Malang became part of the Indian ethos. These saints embraced all the people irrespective of their religion and caste. They melded with the local culture fully.

Divisive tendencies in the name of religion reared their head due to the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ during the colonial period. The elite sections of society initiated and encouraged these tendencies. But there was a sense of tolerance and love for each other among the common people. Therefore, such tendencies were overshadowed by the integrative and all-inclusive freedom movement. It is here that the magical interpretation of Hinduism by Gandhi succeeded in mobilizing people of all religions within the single thread of Indian nationalism. Mahatma Gandhi was a charismatic leader and his humane approach left a deep impression on people of all faiths. People recited shlokas from the Gita and verses from the Quran and the Bible in his prayer meetings. During this period, we saw Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Shaukatullah Shah Ansari, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Allah Bakhsh, and many others going hand-in-hand with Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and other leaders of the freedom movement. This added richness and strength to the composite notion of Indian nationalism.

Our cultural values are deeply influenced by each other and all religions have left their imprint on our food habits, literature, art, music and architecture. For the last few decades, events in India appear to be moving in the reverse direction; being detrimental to peace and harmony. On the positive side, we witness the bubbling up of integrative efforts within and beyond religion. We had eminent social workers such as Swami Agnivesh and Asghar Ali Engineer, who promoted interfaith dialogue and sought to remove misunderstandings among members of different faiths. These two great men played a prominent role in working to unite Hindus and Muslims. Many crusaders are silently working in society - Father Stan Swamy of Christian Community, WalsonThumpu, John Dayal and Cedric Prakash come to mind who dedicated their lives to promote harmony. Such initiatives and movements of interfaith dialogue strengthened love and harmony among diverse communities. All these people have an unprecedented role in promoting harmony in society. Their initiative contributed in profound ways to maintaining amity among diverse groups. In a way, they are part of those movements in which each in their own way has come to imprint harmony on all of society.

Faisal Khan revived KhudaiKhidmatgar, the organisation Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan founded, to bring people from different faiths together in these crucial times. This grassroots organisation promotes amity and the spirit of mutual respect between Hindus and Muslims. This organization has been teaching people of both the communities to respect each other’s values. They launched an open house Apna Ghar a system wherein members from all communities can live together and share their practices with others in a respectful way. Noted film maker Anand Patwardhan wrote, “Faizal Khan launched the 21stcentury version of KhudaiKhidmatgar in India in the year 2011on Mahatma Gandhi’s Martyrdom Day. Among the objectives of the parent organization, he added that at least 35 members of the revived organization would be non-Muslims. This organization, which started its work by organizing intercommunity dialogues, has been successful in winning the hearts of people across the country. Its membership in the country has swelled to more than 50,000. Today, it has many Hindusas its members, including a few who had once been in the RSS.”

India has been the site of many ghastly lynchings in the past few years. The families of the victims have no social support and are desperately helpless. To empathize with such families, social activist Harsh Mander has started the Karwan-e-Mohabbat Caravan of Love that reaches out to the families of the victims of lynching to extend moral and social support. It has come as significant assistance to families and communities. Many cities have communal harmony groups today and charity groups that help all, even though we may not hear about them much. Since these groups operate silently, they go unnoticed, while the violence of groups that promote divisiveness always hog the limelight.

Even the farmer movement, the most significant post-independence mass movement, has promoted communal amity and unity in a big way. Similarly, the Shaheen Bagh protests strengthened intercommunity amity.

The deeper problem is the global rise in the number of those who believe in the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis and promote divisive tendencies. India is no exception. A United Nations-sponsored high-level committee when Kofi Annan was Secretary-General put forward the notion of an ‘Alliance of Civilizations’. This is the guiding principle of many emerging groups who wish to revive India’s syncretic traditions of our culture and society. In the current troubling scenario, these rays of hope are lesser-known but critical for a peaceful future.

(The author is a social activist and commentator. He taught at IIT Mumbai and is the winner of 2007 National Communal Harmony Award)